The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Dick Herron and Sam Bolton sat on the trunk of a fallen tree. It was dim morning. Through the haze that shrouded the river figures moved. Occasionally a sharp sound eddied the motionless silence--a paddle dropped, the prow of a canoe splashed as it was lifted to the water, the tame crow uttered a squawk. Little by little the groups dwindled. Invisible canoes were setting out, beyond the limits of vision. Soon there remained but a few scattered, cowled figures, the last women hastily loading their craft that they might not be left behind. Now these, too, thrust through the gray curtain of fog. The white men were alone.
With the passing of the multitude once again the North came close. Spying on the deserted camp an hundred smaller woods creatures fearfully approached, bright-eyed, alert, ready to retreat, but eager to investigate for scraps of food that might have been left. Squirrels poised in spruce-trees, leaped boldly through space, or hurried across little open stretches of ground. Meat-hawks, their fluffy plumage smoothed to alertness, swooped here and there. Momentary and hasty scurryings in the dead leaves attested the presence of other animals, faint chirpings and rustlings the presence of other birds, following these their most courageous foragers. In a day the Indian camp would have taken on the character of the forest; in a month, an ancient ruin, it would have fitted as accurately with its surroundings as an acorn in the cup.
Now the twisted vapours drained from among the tree-trunks into the river bed, where it lay, not more than five feet deep, accurately marking the course of the stream. The sun struck across the tops of the trees. A chickadee, upside down in bright-eyed contemplation, uttered two flute-notes. Instantly a winter-wren, as though at a signal, went into ecstatic ravings. The North was up and about her daily business.
Sam Bolton and Dick finally got under way. After an hour they arrived opposite the mouth of a tributary stream. This Sam announced as the Mattawishguia. Immediately they turned to it.
The Mattawishguia would be variously described; in California as a river, in New England as a brook, in Superior country as a trout stream. It is an hundred feet wide, full of rapids, almost all fast water, and, except in a few still pools, from a foot to two feet deep. The bottom is of round stones.
Travel by canoe in such a stream is a farce. The water is too fast to pole against successfully more than half the time; the banks are too overgrown for tracking with the tow-line. About the only system is to get there in the best way possible. Usually this meant that Dick waded at the bow and Sam at the stern, leaning strongly against the current. Bowlders of all sorts harassed the free passage, stones rolled under the feet, holes of striking unexpectedness lay in wait, and the water was icy cold. Once in a while they were able to paddle a few hundred feet. Then both usually sat astride the ends of the canoe, their legs hanging in the water in order that the drippings might not fall inside. As this was the early summer, they occasionally kicked against trees to drive enough of the numbness from their legs so that they could feel the bottom.
It was hard work and cold work and wearing, for it demanded its exact toll for each mile, and was as insistent for the effort at weary night as at fresh morning.
Dick, in the vigour of his young strength, seemed to like it. The leisure of travel with the Indians had barely stretched his muscles. Here was something against which he could exert his utmost force. He rejoiced in it, taking great lungfuls of air, bending his shoulders, breaking through these outer defences of the North with wanton exuberance, blind to everything, deaf to everything, oblivious of all other mental and physical sensations except the delight of applying his skill and strength to the subduing of the stream.
But Sam, patient, uncomplaining, enduring, retained still the broader outlook. He, too, fought the water and the cold, adequately and strongly, but it was with the unconsciousness of long habit. His mind recognised the Forest as well as the Stream. The great physical thrill over the poise between perfect health and the opposing of difficulties he had left behind him with his youth; as indeed he had, in a lesser sense, gained with his age an indifference to discomfort. He was cognisant of the stillness of the woods, the presence of the birds and beasts, the thousand subtleties that make up the personality of the great forest.
And with the strange sixth sense of the accustomed woodsman Sam felt, as they travelled, that something was wrong. The impression did not come to him through any of the accustomed channels. In fact, it hardly reached his intellect as yet. Through long years his intuitions had adapted themselves to their environment. The subtle influences the forest always disengaged found in the delicately attuned fibres of his being that which vibrated in unison with them. Now this adjustment was in some way disturbed. To Sam Bolton the forest was different, and this made him uneasy without his knowing why. From time to time he stopped suddenly, every nerve quivering, his nostrils wide, like some wild thing alert for danger. And always the other five senses, on which his mind depended, denied the sixth. Nothing stirred but the creatures of the wilderness.
Yet always the impression persisted. It was easily put to flight, and yet it always returned. Twice, while Dick rested in the comfort of tobacco, Sam made long detours back through the woods, looking for something, he knew not what; uneasy, he knew not why. Always he found the forest empty. Everything, well ordered, was in its accustomed place. He returned to the canoe, shaking his head, unable to rid himself of the sensation of something foreign to the established order of things.
At noon the men drew ashore on a little point of rock. There they boiled tea over a small fire, and ate the last of their pilot's bread, together with bacon and the cold meat of partridges. By now the sun was high and the air warm. Tepid odours breathed from the forest, and the songs of familiar homely birds. Little heated breezes puffed against the travellers' cheeks. In the sun's rays their garments steamed and their muscles limbered.
Yet even here Sam Bolton was unable to share the relaxation of mind and body his companion so absolutely enjoyed. Twice he paused, food suspended, his mouth open, to listen intently for a moment, then to finish carrying his hand to his mouth with the groping of vague perplexity. Once he arose to another of his purposeless circles through the woods. Dick paid no attention to these things. In the face of danger his faculties would be as keenly on the stretch as his comrade's; but now, the question one merely of difficult travel, the responsibility delegated to another, he bothered his head not at all, but like a good lieutenant left everything to his captain, half closed his eyes, and watched the smoke curl from his brier pipe.
When evening fell the little fish-net was stretched below a chute of water, the traps set, snares laid. As long as these means sufficed for a food supply, the ammunition would be saved. Wet clothes were hung at a respectful distance from the blaze.
Sam was up and down all night, uncomfortable, indefinitely groping for the influence that unsettled his peace of mind. The ghost shadows in the pines; the pattering of mysterious feet; the cries, loud and distant, or faint and near; the whisperings, whistlings, sighings, or crashes; all the thousand ethereal essences of day-time noises that go to make up the Night and her silences--these he knew. What he did not know, could not understand, was within himself. What he sought was that thing in Nature which should correspond.
The next day at noon he returned to Dick after a more than usually long excursion, carrying some object. He laid it before his companion. The object proved to be a flat stone; and on the flat stone was the wet print of a moccasin.
"We're followed," he said, briefly.
Dick seized the stone and examined it closely.
"It's too blurred," he said, at last; "I can't make it out. But th' man who made that track wasn't far off. Couldn't you make trail of him? He must have been between you an' me when you found this rock."
"No," Sam demurred, "he wasn't. This moccasin was pointed down stream. He heard me, and went right on down with th' current. He's sticking to the water all the way so as to leave no trail."
"No use trying to follow an Injun who knows you're after him," agreed Dick.
"It's that Chippewa, of course," proffered Sam. "I always was doubtful of him. Now he's followin' us to see what we're up to. Then, he ain't any too friendly to you, Dick, 'count of that scrap and th' girl. But I don't think that's what he's up to--not yet, at least. I believe he's some sort of friend or kin of that Jingoss, an' he wants to make sure that we're after him."
"Why don't he just ambush us, then, an' be done with it?" asked Dick.
"Two to one," surmised Bolton, laconically. "He's only got a trade-gun--one shot. But more likely he thinks it ain't going to do him much good to lay us out. More men would be sent. If th' Company's really after Jingoss, the only safe thing for him is a warning. But his friend don't want to get him out of th' country on a false alarm."
"That's so," said Dick.
They talked over the situation, and what was best to be done.
"He don't know yet that we've discovered him," submitted Sam. "My scouting around looked like huntin', and he couldn't a seen me pick up that stone. We better not try to catch him till we can make sure. He's got to camp somewheres. We'll wait till night. Of course he'll get away from th' stream, and he'll cover his trail. Still, they's a moon. I don't believe anybody could do it but you, Dick. If you don't make her, why there ain't nothing lost. We'll just have to camp down here an' go to trapping until he gets sick of hanging around."
So it was agreed. Dick, under stress of danger, was now a changed man. What he lacked in experience and the power to synthesise, he more than made up in the perfection of his senses and a certain natural instinct of the woods. He was a better trailer than Sam, his eyesight was keener, his hearing more acute, his sense of smell finer, his every nerve alive and tingling in vibrant unison with the life about him. Where Sam laboriously arrived by the aid of his forty years' knowledge, the younger man leaped by the swift indirection of an Indian--or a woman. Had he only possessed, as did Bolton, a keen brain as well as keen higher instincts, he would have been marvellous.
The old man sat near the camp-fire after dark that night sure that Herron was even then conducting the affair better than he could have done himself. He had confidence. No faintest indication,--even in the uncertainty of moonlight through the trees,--that a man had left the river would escape the young man's minute inspection. And in the search no twig would snap under those soft-moccasined feet; no betraying motion of brush or brake warn the man he sought. Dick's woodcraft of that sort was absolute; just as Sam Bolton's woodcraft also was absolute--of its sort. It might be long, but the result was certain,--unless the Indian himself suspected.
Dick had taken his rifle.
"You know," Sam reminded him, significantly, "we don't really need that Injun."
"I know," Dick had replied, grimly.
Now Sam Bolton sat near the fire waiting for the sound of a shot. From time to time he spread his gnarled, carved-mahogany hands to the blaze. Under his narrow hat his kindly gray-blue eyes, wrinkled at the corners with speculation and good humour, gazed unblinking into the light. As always he smoked.
Time went on. The moon climbed, then descended again. Finally it shone almost horizontally through the tree-trunks, growing larger and larger until its field was crackled across with a frostwork of twigs and leaves. By and by it reached the edge of a hill-bank, visible through an opening, and paused. It had become huge, gigantic, big with mystery. A wolf sat directly before it, silhouetted sharply. Presently he raised his pointed nose, howling mournfully across the waste.
The fire died down to coals. Sam piled on fresh wood. It hissed spitefully, smoked voluminously, then leaped into flame. The old woodsman sat as though carved from patience, waiting calmly the issue.
Then through the shadows, dancing ever more gigantic as they became more distant, Sam Bolton caught the solidity of something moving. The object was as yet indefinite, mysterious, flashing momentarily into view and into eclipse as the tree-trunks intervened or the shadows flickered. The woodsman did not stir; only his eyes narrowed with attention. Then a branch snapped, noisy, carelessly broken. Sam's expectancy flagged. Whoever it was did not care to hide his approach.
But in a moment the watcher could make out that the figures were two; one erect and dominant, the other stooping in surrender. Sam could not understand. A prisoner would be awkward. But he waited without a motion, without apparent interest, in the indifferent attitude of the woods-runner.
Now the two neared the outer circle of light; they stepped within it; they stopped at the fire's edge. Sam Bolton looked up straight into the face of Dick's prisoner.
It was May-may-gwan, the Ojibway girl.